Book Review: “Newton and the Counterfeiter”

February 19, 2010

ISAAC NEWTON

I was working in the faculty room yesterday when one of the instructors asked the open air, “Does anyone know anything about Newtonian physics?” I told him his question was coincidental, because I had just finished reading a  book about Isaac Newton, the 17th century physicist, mathematician, and natural philosopher.

I think I correctly answered my colleague’s question, which had to do with Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.” But while the book I just read explained the achievements for which Newton is still regarded as one of the greatest of geniuses, its purpose is to recount the work of his later life, when he was warden of the Royal Mint — and particularly the relentless detective work with which he brought to justice Britain’s most brazen counterfeiter.

Statue of Isaac Newton - and the apple - at the Oxford Museum of Natural History

Newton did his signature scientific work at Trinity College in Cambridge, but he lobbied friends for many years to get him a political appointment in London. It finally came in the form of position at the mint, which made the silver coins that were Britain’s only hard currency at the time. When Newton arrived at his office in the Tower of London, the kingdom’s economy was on the verge of collapse, partly because  of expensive military operations undertaken by William of Orange and partly because the royal currency was, in a word, disappearing. An old issue of coins was being degraded by so-called “clippers” who shaved bits of silver from the money to be melted down and sold. Meanwhile British silver was leaving the country altogether because it was worth more in exchange for gold in other countries than it was in exchange for commodities in England. The result was a bull market for counterfeiters, including the audacious and dangerous William Chaloner.

Newton’s predecessors as warden of the mint had not taken the job seriously except as a source of income, and that was expected of Newton, too. But he applied to the mint the same combination of energy and curiosity that had fueled his discoveries in fields like gravity and the behavior of light and his development of the mathematical system known as the calculus.

Isaac Newton's image on a one-pound note

First, Newton took control of a program already underway when he arrived – the recall and replacement of all British coins then in circulation. This project was limping along when Newton took over, and he put the means in place to accelerate it and get the job done in a fraction of the projected time. Then he turned his attention to the counterfeiters, employing a network of spies and informers and counter-agents and double crossers to gather information and pounce on “coiners” – eventually including Chaloner, whose career as a counterfeiter had had its ups and downs.

Isaac Newton investigates the refraction of light.

Like most such scoundrels, Chaloner made his share of mistakes, and one of them was to publicly claim that the heart of the nation’s counterfeiting problem was in the mint itself, and imply that Newton’s incompetence was partly to blame. Don’t knock the Rock. Newton went after Chaloner with a vengeance, spending hundreds of hours personally interrogating people who could help build a case against the fraud. Chaloner had been in and out of prison several times and had dodged the noose that was reserved for counterfeiters, whom British law regarded as traitors. In Newton, he had met his match and – ultimately – his maker.

“Newton and the Counterfeiter,” both informative and entertaining, was written by Thomas Levenson, who is a professor of science writing at MIT.

A topic that Levenson discusses throughout this book – in fact, it’s an important thread that runs through all of Newton’s activities – is Newton’s search for contact with God. In fact, Levenson reports that religious matters became the preoccupation of Newton’s life when he had put most scientific inquiry behind him. I discussed that aspect of the book in a column in the Catholic Spirit, and it’s available at THIS LINK.

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7 Responses to “Book Review: “Newton and the Counterfeiter””

  1. Steve Frank Says:

    Thanks for the great review! I have this book on my want list, and I’ve heard others in my C4 group talk about it, but of course we’re biased. (Colonial Coin Collectors Club) It’s nice to see the book from a non-collectors perspective. As I’m sure you’re aware, foreign coins were out colonial coins. We did have some early coins produced here before the mint was established in 1792, and under the articles of confederation, states were granted to coin their own money, hence we have various state coppers, ie. Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, and Massachusetts, but we had a coin shortage, and would take just about anything. I personally collect contemporary counterfeits, and there is a group assembled to study these and place them into families based on die sharing, punch sharing, and device design similarities. We will never know for sure the names of the counterfeiters, but if we can take these George III British halfpence and group them into families, it is a wonderful accomplishment, and I’m proud to say, I played a small part within this group, although less active now, concentrating more on counterfeit Spanish and Spanish American coins that circulated in the colonies. I recently picked up a countefeit 1801 2 escudos with a Madrid mintmark, and the wrong assayers initials. It was gold plated……platinum!! Platinum was considered a lowly base metal, but having the weight, was sometimes used to make counterfeit gold pieces. It’s a great area in numismatics, where the history behind the coins, and those who spent them are what drives us….I find collecting federal coins boring now, although I did start there, as does nearly everyone. The collecting is actually less expensive, and we value our libraries above our coins. The friends you make in colonial coins are those that last a lifetime. I came back to collecting several years ago, and the people I’ve met are the best of the best. I drive a cab, but we have electricians, doctors, painters, mechanics, lawyers, CEO’s, scientists, teachers, metal shop workers, and every other job you can imagine….not sure if we have anyone in the newspaper business…the friendships are built around our shared interest which is the study of colonial coins. I have yet to meet anyone pretentious, and most are unassuming. My collection may consist of 10 and 15 dollar coins while my friend may have individual coins with such beauty and rarity, they cost 6 figures, but he is just as interested in my coins if there is a new variety discovery to be made, or a new theory. Boy did I get off course!! You don’t ever want to sit next to me on a long bus ride!! Great Feview, and I’m going to share it with my group.

    All the best!
    Steve

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    Thanks for your comments. There are a lot of details in the book about the manner in which coins were minted – legally or otherwise – in the 17th century.
    Have you ever read a book by an astronomer named Michael Molnar who advances a theory about the identity of the “star of Bethlehem” based on images on ancient coins?

  3. Steve Frank Says:

    Hi again. I haven’t read it, but now have some interest in the book. I posted your review to my colonial coins yahoo group, and it generated some response as I said, and when I posted this question, there was a fairly large thread that morphed into a subject change…without posting all of the emails, I’ve cut and pasted some of the responses separated by a line of asterisks for each email. Not every email is included….but you can get an idea of the diversity within the goup, and see how the 3 or 4 who did read the book felt about the theory….and a few other things. There were a couple of nice photo’s of coins included that I didn’t send…Thanks again!! Steve

    I don’t know if you collect anything, but it get’s interesting seeing what some of my friends collect….out of curiosity, are you a collector of anything?? It’s kind of funny, because non-collectors just do not understand the drive behind collecting. As I’ve said to the group on the past, and it got a few laughs, if you want a 2nd date with a girl, never tell her on the first date that you collect colonial coins….as a matter of fact, you should wait a few months.

    *******************************************************************************************

    Hi Steve,
    I know Mike Molnar and have a copy of his book, and also a coin or two that portrays what might be the Star of Bethlehem. It’s a cool theory and I think it has merit.

    http://www.eclipse. net/~molnar/

    http://www.astronom ynotes.com/ history/bethlehe m-star.html

    Ray

    ************************************************************

    I have a signed copy of Molnar’s book and started to read it when I
    bought it in 2005, but it gets DEEP into astrology, which I personally
    see as a complete crock, so I found it difficult to continue. I just
    went over and picked it up off the shelf, and will have to try reading
    it again.

    Here’s my specimen of one of the coins, dated to ca. 12-14AD.

    (I knw Ray has a nice one too, which I have an image of….somewhere. )

    *****************************************************************

    Steve, Craig & All,
    Astrology was a lot different in ancient times than it is now. The Magi were from the East and most likely astrologers, because of the customs of those religions. The Jewish population had nothing to do with astrology. The coin in question has Aries the Ram looking over his shoulder at a star in the sky. Aries the Ram was astrologically symbolic of Judea during that time period. Molnar has a program in his computer that will give you the positioning of stars and planets for any longitude and latitude for any date in history. The conjunction of planets (stars to the astrologers) had great significance and for this conjunction (crossing of paths) to occur within the constellation Aries was a sign that a Great (Heavenly) King was to be born in Judea. Now that’s the simplified version, but if you have an interest in either ancient coins or the story of the Magi, take a 1/2 hour tonight and read the links I posted shortly ago. Although astrology in a bunch of hooey in my opinion, it was a significant part of a culture in ancient times and you need to know a little about it to understand the people of the time.
    Ray

    *******************************************************************************************

    Having read the book and as a specialist in ancient Syrian coins I am personally of the opinion that the theory doesn’t make sense. It would be one thing if Molnar could show a single coin series of Antioch under Quirinius (the governor of Syria when Jesus was born, according to Luke (I think it’s Luke)) with the star and Aries. Then maybe you could reasonably argue that some celestial event was being commemorated, but the symbol of star and Aries continues to occur on Antiochene bronze coins until AD 260. Since the Roman emperors nor the government officials in Syria were Christians there is absolutely no reason for them to have continued to use the star and Aries on their coins for such a long period if it was referring to a one time special event like the Star of Bethlehem. In light of this, it seems much more reasonable to take the sign of Aries as a symbol for Syria. We know from ancient astrological treatises that Aries was considered the regular sign under which Syria fell. Likewise, there are several other series of Roman provincial coins of Commagene and Mesopotamia (regions adjacent to Syria) that also use their respective astrological symbols as part of their coin types. Because of all this I think there is no reason to hype up the Antioch coins of Quirinius as special issues commemorating the Star of Bethlehem.

    Sorry to be a party pooper, but I can’t help it. It was a bad night last night and I’m sure most of you know why.

    Oliver

    ******** Oliver is Canadian and this was the day after USA beat Canada in hockey*********

    *****************************************************************************

    Oliver,
    I will not publicly comment about last night for fear of those spikes in your front yard! But there’s still time for the Canadians. With respect to the coin itself, I have questions myself about it relating to the “Bethlehem Star” but with respect to the astrology of the time, and the celestial events at 6BC specifically, I think that there is merit to theorize that this conjunction is what the Magi saw in the sky… a sign… not a star suspended over a town… The coin inspired Molnar’s research into this theory.
    Ray

    ******************** Oliver is the group moderator … reason for Ray’s initial comment ************

    Sure Craig,
    Go ahead and post them. This is a little off topic and we shouldn’t
    spend long on the subject. After reading Oliver’s reply, I was thinking
    that he might consider writing an article on the topic for the ANS Magazine.
    Also, I wouldn’t necessarily consider ancient coins completely off topic…
    Wayne Shelby found a copper of Constantine while metal detecting a farm
    field in Burlington County, NJ. So is this evidence that the Romans were
    here before the Vikings?
    Ray

    *******************************************************************************************

    Here is where the thread switches, as the original question is off topic for a colonials group, and Ray Williams, the club president changes it over to other collecting interests, which shows what others collect…some funny

    ***************************************************************************************

    The wealth of knowledge among the members of this group is amazing! Knowing
    many of you, I also know that many have collecting interests outside of
    colonials and outside of numismatics! As shown by Craig and Oliver, they
    have an interest in ancients. I have friends that collect bubble gum,
    hippopotamuses (hippopotamii?) and sand pails! Really, no kiddin’. And
    these are well known respected colonial collectors. I’d like to know what
    other colonial collectors collect besides colonials.

    I’ll start:
    Pocket watches, bullets (from battles), colonial paper money, books,
    tools/woodworking, and friends. There’s probably more, but that’s a start.
    Ray

    *************************************************************

    Tribal Art, Postal History, Art Glass

    Michael.

    ***********************************************************

    Early (pre-1821) Ohio imprints and American imprints before the Revolutionary War. Pretty much everything else is numismatic.

    df

    ******************************************************************

    Besides various areas of numismatic interests:

    Ancient oil lamps and terracotta,
    postcards depicting astronomical observatories and telescopes (and a
    few other topics),
    memorabilia pertaining to my and my wife’s hometowns back in PA,
    and a few other odds and ends.

    I used to collect meteorites, but just last month I completed the sale
    of my collection (192 falls/finds) to a well known dealer.

    ********************************************************************************

    A few years back I started collecting old almanacs from Boston, and more recently acquired a very old newspaper from Boston, which I am sure will be joined by others, over time. Any documents or ephemera related to Boston’s history are of interest to me.

    Also, I used to casually collect political buttons, but that stopped when I re-discovered coins, which I had collected as a boy.

    *****************************************************************

    Signatures, mainly Presidential, Native American art, Collecting Illustrations and Prints, Woodworking, Model Railroading, Books dealing with History, Sciences, Technology & Food, Gardening, Wines, Music (classical and jazz, piano performance, composition) , Painting

    ***********************************************************************

    i am probably in on this too late but here is a good reference
    http://www.symbolicmessengers.com/
    Astronomical Symbols on Ancient and Medieval Coins

    by Marshall Faintich

    Marshall is a astrophysicist , he brings an interesting point of view to this topic and he is a member of several coin groups
    paul

    ***********************************************************************

    Oliver,
    I’m the bubble gum collector to whom Ray refers. Actually, I collect
    Novelty Bubble Gum, and have well over 100, but haven’t counted. My kids
    bring home friends to see my collection, and we have fun looking at it
    all. Some must be real rare as they only would have been sold briefly,
    like “Rambo black flack bubble gum” with a picture of Stallone firing a
    machine gun on it. The Jurassic Park bubble gum is in this vein. One is
    “Sand bubble gum with candy ants”, and “Pizza to Blow” is another. One
    popular one is a nose shaped dispenser, it says, “…to pick and chew.”
    It has a loop so it can be worn as a ring, and the gum comes out the
    nostrils. A recent addition is a sugar free “Supermodel” bubble gum that
    is represented as containing 10 complete meals. You get the idea, my
    family and friends have fun finding additions….I get given duplicates
    often, but that is OK. (They can always be chewed)

    Also, I imagine I collect Sunbeam cars, but I only have two: one running
    one not. But the running one is an R-7 (A Harrington Alpine) There is a
    photo of it on the http://www.harringtonalpine.org/ web site. Click
    registry, then look for “D”…mine is the last Harrington on the
    list…the last one built, registration number: B9407633. Click that and
    you’ll see a photo.
    Buell

    **********************************************************************

    I collect vintage audio equipment from the 50’s and 60’s. Tube amps/preamps/ tuners and speakers…. ..Eico, Jensen, Altec, McIntosh etc.
    I also collect Zenith “Circle of Sound” and related clock radios from the 60’s and 70’s, I’m up to about 50 different.
    Stan

    **********************************************************************

    Baseball cards and non-sports trading cards from the 1970s (the time of my youth).

    There might be a genetic component at work. I have 12,500 45rpm records in my guestroom that my brother made me buy for him off of Craigslist. He is going to come pick them up at some point to add to his 40,000 LPs.

    ****************************************************************************

    Wow, Buell. This is a real education for me. I had no idea that there
    was such a variety of unusual and amusing bubble gum types out there.
    I’ll have to keep a look out for the rare ones.

    Oliver

    **************************************************************************

    I mostly eschew the collecting of bubble gum.

    James

    *************************************************************

    I was afraid someone would say something like this

    My other main areas of collecting are knives, Boy Scout patches, and
    renderings of Eagles, print, painted, sculpted, etc. David

    **************************************************************

    Outside of numismatics, I collect antique fishing reels and fishing lures……
    Lets go fishing!
    Rickie Rose

    ****************************************************************

    P. G. Wodehouse, Hall china, and records – LP’s and 78’s. The collections were severely reduced by a fire, but I had a cool experience with one of the pre-war blues 78’s that survived. It turned out to be the only known copy of Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Cold Woman Blues”/”99 Blues.” I loaned it out to be used in the huge Charley Patton boxed set of about 7 years ago. Shellac is fragile, and it was too highly prized for me to keep in my meger holdings, so I had to sell it. Had I been collecting at the time, I could have gotten some very nice colonials for what it brought.

    Bruce Smith

    ********************************************************************************************

    Thanks for asking Ray…Georgia currency of any sort, stamps, post cards, books, Connecticut coppers, other coins, auction catalogs and I’m really proud of my web site http://www.davidmar sh.com which has the most complete listing of Georgia Obsolete Currency issues including Colonial issues on the net. If you are interest in Georgia Colonial issues take a look. http://www.davidmar sh.com/colonial. html…Best regards….David Marsh.

    *****************************************************************************

    I collect clasp knives (18thC & 19thC horn handle), snuff boxes (brass &
    paper mache), Indian artifacts (that I find), carved peach pits
    (baskets, monkeys, etc.), paper money & exonumia from Lancaster County,
    PA… and way too much other stuff.

    **********************************************************************

    Marshall lived here in St. Louis for awhile and his brother still does
    and is very active in US coins. I have two drafts that Marshall was
    working on back from 1994 & 1998. One entitled Symbolic Messengers of
    Medieval Man and the second entitled Visions explained. Marshal back
    dated various star alignments, comets, eclipses and other astrological
    events, determined where and when on earth they were visible and
    compared them to known coins (rulers). In some cases Marshall believed
    he could pin point the date of issue for some coins by the astrological
    event. The coin makers used various combinations of crescents
    (eclipses), pellets or dots (stars) etc on the coins. It is believed by
    Marshall that these represented good or bad omens and were used on coins
    to commemorate various events like winning major battles, coronations,
    deaths etc. This is a simplified version but I found it all very
    interesting.

    Dan

    **************************************************************

    Deer Antelers, Turkey feathers, and Grouse marbles.

    Byron

    ************************************************************

    Byron is a very good writer and researcher who lives in rural PA. I remember him posting about grouse marbles some years back…..I think it has to do with the rocks birds have in their gullets?? Craw?? whatever it’s called…and he’s a hunter…some of the collecting interests are odd, but understandable.

    That’s it!!! Take care, and I look forward to more of your wonderful writing!!

    Steve

  4. Steve Frank Says:

    BTW, in reading the post, I see some of the (s)’s are ommited where someone said something tongue in cheek, like Ray’s saying the metal detecting find shows that the Romans were here before the vikings….the detecting find was real, but the comment he made afterwards was a joke.

  5. Toby Bresett Says:

    I agree with you actually, I do think! May it become likely for you to have your site translated in German? English is actually my second language.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I have no way to translate the site into German. Your English seems pretty sound.


  6. There are interesting information about differences between TDD and BDD I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the stuff you post!! Thumbs up

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